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Getting the goods

You've piled up frequent-flier miles, now make the most of them.

April 02, 2006|Charles Lockwood | Special to The Times

NOW that too many miles are chasing too few awards, how can you get those free tickets and upgrades? You must earn -- and spend -- your miles wisely.

Here's what has worked for me, allowing me to make numerous free trips and give tickets and upgrades to family and friends.

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EARN WISELY

Loyalty is essential. Identify one airline whose route system most closely matches your usual travel areas and where you would like to take your free trips. Fly that airline as often as possible so you accumulate most of your miles in one account.

Remember international alliances. Many U.S. carriers have joined international frequent-flier alliances. Star Alliance, for example, has 17 members, including United, Lufthansa and Singapore airlines. OneWorld's eight members include American, British Airways and Qantas.

Through these alliances, you can usually accumulate miles in your primary carrier's program if you fly one of the partner carriers. (One caution: Many foreign carriers do not give full mileage credit if you're flying on a deeply discounted coach tickets. Read the fine print.)

Be in the know. Visit your mileage program's website at least once a month to learn about special offers, such as a free round-trip coach ticket for short-haul (typically 1,500 miles or less) U.S. flights for 15,000 miles rather than the usual 25,000 miles. You also can register online for many mileage program specials.

Consider signing up for e-mails about your program's special offers and announcements. Sure, you'll get plenty of e-mails that you'll quickly delete. But you'll also learn about special mileage-earning offers or new routes.

E-mails also will alert you to new routes for which you have a greater chance of getting free tickets, because other program members won't have picked over those flights.

If you really want the inside track, get "Mileage Pro: The Insider's Guide to Frequent Flyer Programs," by Randy Petersen and Tim Winship. This paperback, available at www.mileageprobook.com, is informative and well-organized and fits into a carry-on bag.

Choose the right partners. After you've decided to fly one carrier most of the time, patronize its affiliated partners, such as credit cards, hotels, rental car companies and mortgage companies that award mileage to your program. Some frequent-flier programs have hundreds of partners. As much as 60% of most members' mileage comes from these nonflight sources, says Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer (www.insideflyer.com).

Credit cards that are co-branded with mileage programs can be a quick way to pile up the miles. Simply getting a credit card that's "co-branded" with your selected carrier can give you a one-time bump of as much as 25,000 miles after the first use.

Once you get the co-branded credit card, you can earn mileage for many of your everyday purchases and even some tax payments. (Think L.A. County property taxes, due April 10, which can be paid with a credit card.)

Mileage-earning credit cards, however, can have real drawbacks that often reduce or even negate their program value, including high interest or fees on tax payments.

Switch to a hotel affinity credit card. This suggestion may seem like mileage heresy, but consider getting a new credit card to earn hotel points, such as Starwood's Preferred Guest program or Marriott Rewards, not airline miles.

The hotel reward programs typically have fewer restrictions than the airlines, and because hotel prices are increasing in many markets, a free hotel stay may be even more valuable.

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SPEND WISELY

Know the value of your miles. What are your miles worth? (See chart below.) Conventional wisdom says 2 cents a mile -- or what the credit card companies and other partners pay the airlines.

Now that airlines are offering merchandise for miles, you need to do the math for those transactions. Typically, the plane tickets are a better deal than a plasma TV or computer. But you don't have to play the "capacity-control" game to redeem your miles for merchandise.

Plan. If you want to use one of the saver-type awards with capacity controls, you must usually plan your trip as far in advance as possible, particularly for such popular U.S. destinations as Hawaii and for the limited number of free international business- and first-class tickets.

When it comes to those long-haul international trips, you're competing with millions of other program members who would much rather spend 80,000 or 90,000 miles for a comfortable and pricey business-class ticket than 50,000 or 60,000 miles for a cramped coach ticket that can often be purchased at sale prices.

Awards can usually be booked up to a year in advance. Being an early bird, however, doesn't guarantee a seat. Some U.S. and foreign carriers don't allocate free seats, particularly business- or first-class international, for award use that far in advance. The carriers hold back free seats for last-minute ticket sales.

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